On a muggy Friday evening at the Mayor Radhakrishnan Stadium here at the Asian Champions Trophy hockey tournament, Malaysia and China were in action against each other.
It is just another day for both teams, vying to get maximum points and surge up the table. But for Balaji Kumar, officiating in the middle as an umpire, it was a momentous occasion.
The 34-year-old from Tamil Nadu made his International debut in the Malaysia-China contest and had a hassle-free match, earning plaudits for his performance.
“I am very happy to umpire my first International match in my home state. I was enthusiastic but didn’t get nervous. It was a proud moment. I knew it would happen but didn’t expect it to happen in my home state,” Balaji told Sportstar.
Hailing from Sangagiri in Salem, Balaji completed his schooling in the town, under-graduation in Chennai (Loyola) and post-graduation in Coimbatore before settling down in the textile city.
Surprisingly, it was not in Coimbatore that he started his first umpiring, rather in Singapore.
“I went to Singapore to do a course in Hospitality Management. At that time, I did umpiring for the Singapore league and played for Singapore Recreation Club. “It was a very good experience. I learnt quite a few things,” said Balaji, who is a fitness trainer.
Balaji returned to Coimbatore in 2012-13, determined to make it to the top in umpiring, doing what he couldn’t achieve as a player. He worked his way quietly, doing several school tournaments and leagues for three years.
From 2017, he officiated inter-district matches, and quite a few All-India tournaments and Nationals in Goa, Kovilpatti and Delhi, which provided Hockey India officials with a glimpse of his potential.
Balaji refereed at the Senior Nationals in Pune in 2021-22 where he learnt to master the art of not getting nervous and getting communication right.
Knowing that this is his passion, Balaji went through the rules and regulations on a regular basis and consulted his seniors including Muneer Mohammad, R.V. Raghuprasad and Javed Shaikh to finetune his skills.
“Munir [Technical Officer of Asian Champions Trophy here] is a veteran, very strong with rules. Internationals, Raghu and Javed sir are always there when I have clarifications and doubts. A special thanks to Sekar J Manoharan, president of the Hockey Unit of Tamil Nadu,” Balaji said.
Balaji is keen to do bigger events like the World Cup and Olympics in the future. His journey has well and truly begun.
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